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Blagojevich’s sentencing judge known for impartiality

In this courtroom sketch former Gov. Blagojevich sits before  Judge James Zagel as court clerk reads verdict his corruptiretrial

In this courtroom sketch, former Gov. Blagojevich sits before Judge James Zagel as a court clerk reads the verdict in his corruption retrial June 27, 2011 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Tom Gianni)

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Updated: January 7, 2012 8:16AM

His background is in law enforcement, but he’s carved out a reputation as a judge who plays it right down the middle, favoring neither the defense nor the prosecution.

That’s the man who will write the final act to the Rod Blagojevich drama.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel, a onetime prosecutor and head of the Illinois State Police, is a jurist who has shown he can be persuaded, to a point, by compassion and a criminal’s good works, lawyers who have had clients before him say.

Yet they say Zagel sticks to the law and is not easily influenced by the media or outside factors.

With Blagojevich, whose sentencing hearing will span Tuesday and Wednesday, they believe Zagel will not be driven by emotion — or even by other defendants’ sentences — but will methodically go through a series of factors before making up his mind.

Zagel himself has repeatedly made clear he avoids media reports on the ex-governor. He did note on Friday, however, that while the defense has complained about the media’s influence on jurors Zagel allowed on his panel, it’s Blagojevich himself who is to blame for creating a public perception with his pre-trial publicity tours.

With the prosecution asking for up to 20 years in prison, and Blagojevich asking for less than 3 ½ years, it’s Zagel who will have extraordinary leeway in deciding how much time the former governor will spend behind bars.

Several defense lawyers, who asked not to be named because they have cases in the building, say Zagel doesn’t lean toward the defense but they still consider him “defense friendly.” They say he has no problem going against prosecutors’ recommendation and giving a lighter sentence if he believes there’s reason.

Defense lawyer Larry Beaumont said that when Beaumont was a federal prosecutor Zagel rejected his recommendations in some rulings.

“I’ve never seen him lean, ever. And I’ve had many cases on both sides [as a prosecutor and defense lawyer]. He analyzes the law and gives the sentence based on specific factors,” Beaumont said. In Blagojevich: “I don’t think either side will have any greater impact than the other.”

The defense calls the prosecution’s proposed range “unwarranted” and “profoundly unjust.” But if Blagojevich hopes to catch a break he has to show some contrition, legal observers say. Zagel can consider against Blagojevich a lack of acceptance of responsibility.

Defense lawyer John Theis, whose cooperating mobster client Nick Calabrese admitted to 14 murders but was sentenced to just 12 years by Zagel because of extraordinary cooperation, said a defendant such as the ex-governor could walk the line, showing remorse without jeopardizing an appeal.

“He could say: ‘I screwed up.’ Or ‘I do believe I had other choices and made bad choices,’ Theis said. “I really don’t expect to see that from him.”

Blagojevich’s recent legal arguments, including that others led him down the wrong path “make clear that Blagojevich accepts no responsibility whatsoever for his criminal conduct,” prosecutors said in a Monday filing.

Last week, perspective on Blagojevich’s sentence shifted dramatically after co-conspirator Tony Rezko was sentenced to 10 ½ years in prison by another judge. Observers widely believe Zagel will consider that a starting point for the ex-governor.

Theis though said Zagel doesn’t have to see it that way.

Beaumont said Zagel likely won’t.

“I don’t know what another judge in another courtroom has done will have that much influence on him,” Beaumont said. “He just does his job as a judge and makes a decision on his own.”

Defense lawyer Joseph Lopez said Zagel has given several of his clients a break, going below federally recommended guidelines at times and against the prosecution recommendation because he was persuaded by their remorse, the testimony of a family member or by other good acts.

“I wouldn’t describe him as being extremely harsh,” Lopez said. “It takes a lot to get him riled.”

Still, another major issue facing Blagojevich is he took the witness stand in front of Zagel. The jury convicted Blagojevich and didn’t believe his testimony.

“If [Zagel] thinks he lied through his teeth on the stand then that’s a big problem,” Lopez said. “He’s gonna get clobbered.”

Throughout the trial, Blagojevich’s lawyers have complained to Zagel that he disproportionately ruled in favor of the prosecution. Zagel responded in court Friday, saying defense lawyers often ignored his rulings when they didn’t like them.

The Blagojeviches have appealed to Zagel to show compassion to the former governor’s two daughters and held up in mitigation his good works as governor, including free rides for seniors.

Amy Blagojevich, 15, is ranked second in her high school class but is undergoing counseling “in connection with the current criminal case against her father,” they say.

“At 8, Annie cannot fully understand what has taken place and cannot begin to fathom a forced separation from her father.”

The principal of Rogers Park Montessori School called Blagojevich a “loving and caring father who doted on his girls no matter how busy his public life became.”

Zagel has received numerous letters, including from Sister Rosemary Connelly, executive director of Misericordia asking that Blagojevich’s daughters “not be deprived of their father indefinitely.”

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